Taken for a Ride

The Vietnam War had been over for a year or two, and I was working as a cab driver. Because I didn't have much seniority, I had to drive nights, weekends and holidays. I was hoping that driving on New Year's Eve would at least mean I'd get good tips from drunk passengers. It had been snowing sideways for several hours, as if someone had come along and thrown a big glob of oatmeal at the city. The streets were covered with black ice.

Near midnight I got a call for the Veterans Administration Hospital. My fare walked out the emergency-room door. He held his arms straight out from his sides. In his left hand he had a piece of yarn that was tied to the neck of a small dog, which looked like a dust mop without a handle. In his right hand he held a clear plastic trash bag filled with children's toys, mostly girls' dolls. His momentum come from the waist, and he paused before each step. He'd throw one leg in front of the other and center his weight before taking the next step. I thought he was going to fall over. He was wearing corduroy pants several inches too short, mismatched argyle socks and a pair of black wingtip shoes. He was also wearing a flannel shirt and a blue parka, and over the parka he was wearing a white shirt. An old scar, several inches long, ran down the side of his face.

I opened the back door of the cab and reached for the plastic bag. He yelled at me not to touch his kids. He ordered the dog to get in and it did. He threw the trash bag onto the seat next to the dog and turned to face me. He grabbed the top of the open door with his left hand, and he put his right hand on the door frame above him. He fell backward a step and dropped his rear end onto the edge of the seat. He picked his legs up from behind his knees and at the same time swiveled his hips. I heard two faint metallic clicks. He was wearing leg braces. He swung his legs in and pulled the door shut.

I walked around and got behind the wheel. He said he was going to Holy Ghost Church. As I pulled away from the hospital he started ranting about inches -- four inches, to be exact -- and how many fourths and sixty-fourths there were in four inches. I asked for the charge-account slip the VA gives to its outpatients. He said he didn't have one. The guy said the church would pay. I doubted it. The guy angrily asked me how tall I thought he was. It was a leading question, but I said I thought he was in the neighborhood of about six feet. He shouted back at me, "Neighborhood! Fuck you!" I turned left onto 17th Avenue and drove slowly alongside City Park. He asked me again how tall he was, and this time I said I didn't know. "I'm five feet, nine fucking inches tall!" he shouted. He began knocking his knees together, and the braces made rhythmic clanks.

We approached the edge of the park near downtown, and on my left was the esplanade in front of East High School. The engine suddenly stalled, and I slid into the curb. I tried to restart the cab. He rolled down the back window and threw out an odd contraption. It looked like pieces of plastic, shiny metal, tape and bandages. Attached to it was a black shoe. He then yanked up his other pant leg, unhitched the same kind of device from his thigh and threw it out the window onto the curb.

For a moment I was shocked and didn't know what to do. I started to get out of the cab and get his legs, but he begged me not to. I thought about calling the cops, but what was I going to do? Bust him for littering? I thought about calling the dispatcher and having her call the VA, but any option would take time and cost me money. My passenger began to laugh. He explained that the VA had fitted him with five pairs of legs during the last three years but they never got his height right. With the idea in the back of my mind that I wasn't going to get paid anyway, I told him that if we left his legs I wasn't going to carry him a step.

I finally got the cab started and pulled away from the curb. I drove about twenty feet, set the brake, turned on the flashers and got out. I walked back to the curb area and saw his shoes and legs were already covered with snow. One leg was in the gutter and the other on the grass. Reasoning with the guy seemed out of the question. I thought about throwing the legs in the trunk and turning them in to Lost & Found at the end of my shift, but I'd never live something like that down with the other drivers. I even thought about holding them for collateral until I got paid, but the idea of touching them seemed weird. So I left them.

When we arrived at the church, I stopped with my tires flush to the curbside. I got out and opened the far side passenger door. The walkway and steps up to the heavy, double doors were covered with snow. No one had shoveled. The guy threw the bag to the steps and the dog jumped out.

I went inside to look for the priest. Rows of pews were filled with sleeping derelicts and groups of men having quiet conversations. There was no booze or cigarette smoking, and the place smelled of incense. I didn't see the priest, and the doors off the altar were locked. The confessionals were empty, and I got no response when I asked if anyone knew where the priest was. I returned to the vestibule. I headed downstairs, where I heard voices. A set of doors were propped open. Inside were more men sitting at tables reading books and playing cards. At the far end of the room were two long folding tables. On top of one were flimsy brown boxes full of old doughnuts. On the other table were two large aluminum coffeepots.

I spent ten or fifteen minutes looking for the priest. No one knew where he was. No answers meant no cash. I went back upstairs and saw the dog and trash bag inside the entrance. I pushed open the front double doors. My passenger had somehow made his way to the top of the stairs, and as I came out he almost fell backwards down the steps. He asked me if I had found the priest. I told him no and he said I shouldn't worry because we'd find him and I'd get paid. His pant legs were dark and wet and trailed behind him like a tail. He was shivering and standing on whatever stumps a surgeon had left him.

I was feeling stupid for not bringing his prosthetics and for letting him talk me into leaving them by the park. I walked by him and down the stairs to the cab. The engine had stalled again. I got in and cranked the key. After a minute or so, it started up again. I put the Checker in gear. It was still snowing sideways as I headed down the street. The midnight peal of the church's bell rang loud and I looked back. The guy had somehow gotten inside the big, oak doors, but one of his pant legs was stuck outside between the door and its frame. Regardless of where I am or what I'm doing on New Year's Eve, it is an image that comes back to haunt me.

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Scott Keating